Influence – What I Once Learned From a Street Hawker of New Delhi

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I used to be often intrigued by some people who always seem to succeed in getting other people to do what they wanted. Who amongst us have successfully warded off a credit card salesman who signed you up for a card you did not want? Most of us would have on many occasions ended up signing a cheque for a charity we didn’t like. I have. Some have even ended up buying insurance policy against alien invasion, because the caller on the other end of the line persuaded us that aliens were going to attack our home and children!

I used to think there must be some magic trick the insurance, used-car salesmen, and these influencers used which hypnotized you into going with their agenda.

Until I had this experience in a traffic junction in New Delhi nearly some twenty years ago, and a twelve-year old taught me this magic of influence.

In the early 1990s when I used to live in New Delhi, I had to drive a five-mile distance to my work and there was this big traffic junction where the traffic snarled up in serpentine queues for over ten-fifteen minutes – felt like hours – and you are doing no more than one mile an hour. And this is where all the street hawkers would come knocking on your car window trying to sell you everything from the magical potion that claimed to have the powers to make you thirty years younger (this predates viagra), to lottery tickets to set you on your way to become a millionaire, to the pirated version of Encyclopedia Britannica – how times have changed! who cares about EB now, when you can have the whole world at the click of a mouse! And there was this young boy who I would see every day, carrying a big bag on his right shoulder, and holding three samples of his wares for display on his left hand. I always saw he held out a crudely made plastic baby toy, some yellowish soft cloth for car wash, and a few black coloured shining ball pens.

He would accost you very politely, and once you lowered your window, he would rattle off all the prices and features of his three wares. Without a breath, he would say, Twenty rupees (about a dollar those days) for the “imported” toy (which was probably made in an unlicensed factory in his parents’ backyard in a slum in Delhi), ten rupees for three car-wash clothes and – hold your breath – two rupees for the pen. More than the wares, something about the boy always impressed me, and first few days I felt guilty that I didn’t buy anything from him. One day as the car slowed down and he delivered his routine pitch, I bought two of his pens which was the only item that really attracted me. A few days later, as he came to me – again the pitch started as usual, twenty for toy, ten for clothes, two for pen – I bought a few more pens. On one of these occasions, as the traffic almost stood still until the cows came home, I asked the boy to display all his wares in the bag. And here’s what I saw – he had two toys (which is the first thing he would rattle off when he accosted you); a few pieces of car-wash clothes (the second on his sales list, you would imagine); and probably a hundred or more pens (which he always mentioned as the last item on his wares). That baffled me, and I asked him if he had sold all his other toys and clothes, and his response was cagey – by then we had developed quite a good rapport. The next day, there he was at it again, and I insisted on him showing me what he had in his stock. Very reluctantly he did. And it was the same – two toys, a few clothes and a bag full of pens. I just recalled at that time that I never saw anyone buy anything other than pens from him!

It mystified me – why did he always carry the items nobody wanted to buy and put these on the top of the list when he approached a customer, when all he was able to sell were only the pens?

At some point during these weeks, I was at a stationer’s to buy some notebooks, and there I saw exactly the same kind of ball pen. The price tag – one rupee each.

I now realised my friend was probably selling about a hundred a day and making five dollars in profit – a tidy sum for a poor in India, even to this day.

But it took me another few months to understand why was my friend then giving the impression that he was trying to sell toys which no one was interested in buying – they not only looked repulsive, but expensive for a rubbish quality – and car wash clothes which were relatively more expensive compared to the pens which looked good?

Around the same time, I began reading works of a great psychologist Robert Cialdini, and one of the things he says – which probably should be obvious to you and me – is that we buy (goods, products or ideas) from people we like. If we don’t like the seller, no matter how good the ware is, chances are we won’t buy off her/him. I think the boy certainly worked on this and ‘packaged’ himself to make him likeable to all of us that bought off him. There is another element of great marketing skill the boy employed – to make decisions, human minds need to be able to satisfy our inner counsel – that we have compared between different possible options, and then chosen the best one. The useless toys and the coloured clothes – which initially attracted attention, but were soon rejected by our minds – were simply props he planted in my mind to enable me to ‘compare’. The ball pens which were shiny – hence attractive and smart – looked the best option and ‘relatively’ cheaper.

As I write this, the young boy’s face comes up fresh in my memory. Every time I have been back in Delhi I have looked out for this young man who must be now in his thirties. He taught me some important lessons in life. In my consulting work – which is all about influencing – I still use what I learnt from him. I am sure he had never had the advantage of reading Cialdini – who published his first book in early 1980s – but this street hawker must have taught many like me things we would otherwise never learn in our lives.

write by Dilys

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